The indie games market is booming, and creatives with Flash skills, talent and imagination are cashing in. You, too, can get on board the Games 3.0 bandwagon.
Just as social networks and blogs have revolutionized the ways we use the web, in recent years the games world has seen a seismic shift in how games are created, published and distributed – and in who profits from them.
While the headlines may go to the newest titles from Electronic Arts or Rockstar Games, the truth is that the big games producers are outnumbered by huge quantities of self-published games.
The majority of these ‘casual games’ are developed in Flash, though other technologies are also popular, especially games for the iPhone or iPod Touch, X-box Live Arcade or Nintendo’s Wii and DSi.
These games are sold through any one of hundreds of portal sites, such as www.newgrounds.com. This new independent games industry also borrows from the social networking and blogging culture for its other key distribution strategy – the ‘meme’ approach works even more effectively than viral marketing’s word-of- mouth methods.
One company that bridges the gap between these two business models – selling through portals or spreading through memes – is Kerb, www.kerb.co.uk, which has ridden the first wave of Flash-driven web design to become a major name in viral gaming.
The company’s Flash games have been played by around 350 million users worldwide. “The old business model of publisher-funded gaming, while it still exists on large console productions, is being massively challenged by the casual gaming market online,” says Kerb’s managing director, Jim McNiven.
“This is because companies like ours know how to generate traffic and how to build and deliver casual games – there’s not necessarily any financial or marketing benefit from involving a traditional publisher.”
McNiven views this democratizing of games as a major movement, and one that’s unlikely to go away. “We’re seeing a growing demand for community-engaged online experiences that involve men and women from a much wider age range,” he explains.
“For example, in casual gaming – one sector of ‘Games 3.0’ – the growth rate is 20 per cent annually and the sector is worth well over £1.6 billion.” Chris Kempt, head of digital marketing agency Kempt, www.kempt.co.uk, also sees interesting trends in the amateur scene.
“Thanks to the vision and work of Tom Fulp [founder of www.newgrounds.com], over the last couple of years amateur developers have started to group together to form collectives, and are now producing some quite remarkable work,” says Kempt.
“Also, thanks to the tireless work of the guys behind FlashGameLicense, www.flashgamelicense.com, they’re starting to earn pretty decent money from licensing their games now.”
FlashGameLicense has been around for a little over a year. “We started as a couple of guys who wanted to improve the way indie Flash developers connected with interested buyers,” says co-founder Chris Hughes.
“We’ve grown into a collection of sites that provides our users with a myriad of tools to help improve and monetize their games. Currently we have over 5,000 registered developers and over 1,000 registered buyers.”
Unlike in a traditional games company, there isn’t a standard organizational structure among indie game developers. “It’s a mixed bag, really,” says Hughes. “The great thing about Flash development is that developers are able to be successful on their own, but collaboration can greatly increase the quality and time to market of a game and many developers take advantage of that.
"I’ve talked to quite a few developers who are working on multiple projects, some with other developers, artists, musicians, and other projects on their own.”
McNiven explains that a typical Kerb game needs the skills of an illustrator or animator, designer, ActionScript programmer, and serverside programmer, as well as people handling the creative and artistic direction.
“The software we use is Illustrator, Photoshop and Flash to design and animate,” he continues. “Flex, Eclipse and red 5 are used for ActionScript and server-side programming, with Dreamweaver for all the HTML and CSS work.”
Despite its name, one of the aims of FlashGameLicense is to allow developers to focus exclusively on making games, no matter what platform they choose. “We’ve been pretty successful at achieving this goal for many developers, so more and more developers are focusing on core game-making skills such as programming, art, and music,” Hughes says.
“There are a number of technologies that developers can choose to work in, such as Flash, Unity, Silverlight, Wild Pockets, and many others. What a developer should do is research these different platforms and decide what best fits the business model they want.
"In most cases Flash is an obvious choice because of the high penetration rate. Viral web games are a rarity outside of Flash.”
“The perfect casual game needs to be something that is very easy to play,” says Kerb’s Jim McNiven.
“People don’t read instructions, but even if they do, you want to avoid building the game in lots of different languages if you can. The other important aspect is the playability.
"We spend time on level design and play testing to make sure that this important element isn’t overlooked. If a game is easy to pick up and hard to put down then you have a killer game.”
“We have a mantra at InboxDMG that games need to be easy to play and a challenge to master,” says Oli Christie.
“That rule applies to simple little games or massive multiplayer games. Shooting and driving games are always popular, as are puzzle games and sport games. But the challenge is to create a completely new type of game.”
This is something that InboxDMG has experience of. “We launched Jelly Jumper, www.jellyjumper.com, in 2007 and it was a huge success. The reason? Fifty levels of increasing difficulty with a game idea that had never really been done before.”
“Our game was played by over 70 million people,” he says. “We reskinned the ageing game engine with some new graphics the other month and right away it was played by four million people.”
Chris Kempt has a simple message for budding indie game designers: just make it fun. “All genres are popular,” he points out. Jim McNiven says that football games are the most popular genre of Flash game.
“Our Stan James Freekick game was played by over 70 million people,” he says. “We re-skinned the ageing game engine with some new graphics the other month and right away it was played by four million people.”
Chris Kempt has a simple message for budding indie game designers: just make it fun. “All genres are popular,” he points out. “Even better – invent a new genre. Don’t let yourself be boxed in. Having said that, certain types of game play better with different audiences – for example, women tend to enjoy puzzle games – but ultimately my advice would be simply to make the game you want to make. If you do that, then your enthusiasm will come out in your work and you’ll have a better product which will then be more successful.”
Once you’ve built a game, you’ve got to let people know about it. You should be thinking of promoting your game while you are designing it and perhaps use the game’s assets to advertise it.
If you’re a Unity user, for example, you can create a Mac OS X Dashboard Widget using the same Project files as your standalone game to advertise your content, or give a pick-up-and-play preview.
Seeding is also a vital way of promoting your game, especially when you want marketing or ‘advergames’ to go viral. As Oli Christie, creative director at InboxDMG, explains:
“For a client to release a game, they need to have a seeding budget to help get the game to the key gaming sites, plus use some of the budget for paid placement. ViralNet is an example of a company that specializes in both paid and free seeding.”
Luckily there are already some well-established routes for the more budget end of the indie-gaming spectrum. “The best way to distribute a free game is to submit it to the thousands of game portals that exist online” says Jim McNiven.
“We have a specialist company that does this based on the information that we’ve been collating for the best part of a decade.” Or you can do it yourself, if you have the time.
“There are still sites out there who are simply looking for good-quality, free games to keep their site visitors happy and coming back,” says Christie.
However, he warns that such sites are becoming savvier and increasingly want to be paid for the traffic they are driving to your game. “An individual [developer] needs to identify the big sites and send the game links to these sites and hope they get picked up,” he says.
“Plus, send the games to forums and blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and so on.” However Chris Kempt doesn’t see nongaming sites like Facebook – and the similarly ubiquitous iPhone – as key routes to success for indie games.
“There is a lot of work being done in both the Facebook and iPhone area but frankly, this is a bit of a red herring,” he says. “In both areas, supply [in terms of the number of projects in circulation] massively exceeds demand and therefore very few projects ever really get traction or make money.
"Whereas in the Flash games arena, it’s still the other way around, and even a very average game can achieve multi-millions of visits – so in my opinion, Flash games are where it’s at.”
Kerb is firmly in this camp, and is currently focusing on creating Flash games to advertise major console releases. This has given the company an insight into how the public’s attitude to gaming is changing.
“A major trend that we are seeing is companies accepting that people will treat Flash games as a genre of their own,” he explains.
“This means that it’s possible for us to create mini-games using the same concept and IP as the main title – without the users confusing our Flash game with the product. Just as the PS3 and PSP versions of the game are different, but play to the strengths and weaknesses of the platform, the Flash game is just another iteration.”
McNiven continues: “A trend that we think will grow is online Flash games supporting the main console title.”
“The most exciting trends I’ve seen lately are multiplayer games, micro-transactions in games, and porting games to multiple platforms,” says Chris Hughes.
“The success rates on all three have been scattered, but I think it is only a matter of time before people start profiting from them on a broader scale.”
Oli Christie is also excited about the massive power of multiplayer games, saying that longevity can be measured in years rather than the weeks or months that are more normal with a single-player game.
“Freekick Fusion, www.gamenet.com/game/freekickfusion, a game we originally developed for Gillette Fusion razors, still gets 100,000 or more players a month coming back to play,” he says.
“We’ve recently launched a lovely Pictionary-style multiplayer drawing game for Post-it Notes for 3M, www.postitgame.co.uk.
You can see that game lasting for years with updated clues and add-ons – we had 300 people playing concurrently last weekend, proving the power of multiplayer.”
There is clearly an audience out there for able Flash designers to get involved in the indie games-development scene and hopefully make some money in return.
“If a games programmer really believes he or she is good, then they should make a game themselves,” says Oli Christie.
“On the back of that viral spread, providing they give their own contact details, business will roll in.”
Chris Kempt suggests another way for indie games developers to make money: “You can put pre-games ads in from people like MochiAds and GameJacket,” he says.
“But revenues tend to be quite low, so personally I wouldn’t. Licensing games is probably the best route for amateurs.” Chris Hughes says that there are many ways to monetize Flash games.
“By far the greatest opportunity offered by a great Flash game is the number of players you can reach. It’s not uncommon for games to get millions of plays in a short span of time, and there are a few ways to capitalize on this opportunity.”
Hughes says developers can use the games they create to drive traffic to their own site, they can use micro-transactions and in-game ads to generate revenue straight from the game itself, and they can sell non-exclusive licences to sites that are interested in obtaining quality content.
Check out a game in the top listings of a site like Newgrounds and you’ll see many of these methods in action. So the market exists, the revenue stream is in place and all that remains is for you to show off your talents.
Working for the man
Flash games are often used as viral marketing tools. But how do these games measure up to those created simply as fun diversions?
“Usually a corporate game is limited in many respects,” says Kerb’s Jim McNiven.
“It has to include a brand message and a blatant attempt to sell a product. You have to ensure that nothing falls foul of the brand guidelines. And when it comes to getting the game in front of people, game portals are often reluctant to take a game that is ultimately an ad.”
McNiven adds that a big Kerb client is PlayStation, so rather than having to transmit brand messages, their projects have to feature characters such as Patapon (above, below right) or LocoRoco (below, right).
“It’s harder to create a successful game for a client than it is to launch one for fun,” agrees Oli Christie of InboxDMG.
“Clients have to remember that people play a game because it’s fun and addictive, rather than it being a ‘Client X’ game.”
Christie says that InboxDMG’s projects are “engagement tools” rather than standard marketingtool games: the aim is to educate and inform users, and to achieve objectives such as data-capture and click-throughs for clients.
He adds that InboxDMG’s clients often use the games to get visitors to enter competitions, or to distribute vouchers.
He says: “We’ve built up a database of 300,000 people from scratch using viral gaming, we’ve given away 10,000 free samples in 48 hours for a client and we’ve got products and services into areas that the client could never reach, for the cost of a viral game.”
FlashGameLicense can put indie game developers in touch with companies for this purpose. Co-founder Chris Hughes suggests that allowing your game to be used for marketing doesn’t have to clash with your gaming principles – if done well, it can be beneficial.
“Many companies have distribution channels, or a large player base,” he says.
“This exposure can be used to catapult your game across the net, and also to monetize the game. You just have to make sure you get the right terms when you make a deal. Also – and this is something a developer should always do – retaining the rights to your game and IP is crucial. Building a brand can be a great way to open up bigger and more lucrative opportunities in the future.”
The iPhone cometh
There’s been a lot of chatter about the vast number of applications available for Apple’s iPhone and iPod touch – a large proportion of which are games.
A quick look at the iTunes App Store displayed 2,500 games compared, to around 850 applications for finance or around 1,300 for health and fitness.
“The iPhone is giving game developers a whole new platform and audience,” observes Oli Christie, of InboxDMG.
“The iPhone has single-handedly opened up a whole new industry. The quality of games is incredibly mixed so far, but with time, you’ll see the potential for some brilliant games, plus multiplayer games using Bluetooth.
"The fact that you can’t program in Flash also creates new challenges, but with Unity, the power to create stunning graphics and gameplay is massive. Exciting times ahead.”
“iPhone games are a very interesting part of the market,” agrees Kerb’s Jim McNiven. “Their low cost and simple purchase method has suddenly made them the market leader. I read the other day that iPhone games are now outselling all of the traditional consoles based on units sold. Although I’m not clear on whether or not ‘free’ download games were included in those stats.”
Tools for the trade
Flash, www.adobe.com, is the king of programs for indie games development, thanks to its ubiquitous presence in browsers and many mobile devices.
But Flash poses some restrictions on games development, particularly in terms of in-game physics and deployment to some hardware platforms.
However, would-be developers aren’t exclusively bound to Flash – there are other tools out there.
Here are a few:
Wii development kit: Pay $2,000 (about £1,370), and become an authorized developer for the Wii console – giving you access to the world of WiiWare. Unity, www.unity3d.com: Unity is a multiplatform game development tool that allows you to create high-performance games for web browsers, the iPhone or iPod Touch, and Nintendo Wii (if you’re an authorized developer).
Wild Pockets, www.wildpockets.com: Currently free, this toolset from Sim Ops Studios allows the creation of interactive 3D browser-based games using assets from tools such as Maya or 3DS Max.
Torque Game Engine Advanced, www.garagegames.com: TGEA offers a full suite of 3D game-development tools and APIs for delivery across multiple platforms including Windows, Mac, Xbox 360, Steam (PC), iPhone and also in a web browser.
Director, www.adobe.com: Version 11.5 of the Shockwave authoring tool features DirectX 9 support for native 3D rendering, H.264 video integration, 5.1 channel sound, and integration with Google SketchUp, as well as support for Flash assets and the NVIDIA PhysX engine.
Blender, www.blender.org: Currently heading for version 2.5, the blender project offers a free, open-source development suite for realtime interactive 3D and game creation and playback – it also features cross-platform compatibility.
Project Rockstar, www.projectrockstar.com
Kerb has become a major player in multiplayer arena, with a presence in persistent browser-based massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs).
“Project Rockstar has a community of 200,000 music lovers managing over a million virtual bands,” says Jim McNiven. “The game has topped 26 million page views a month and has a forum where a single post can get thousands of replies. We have a new MMORPG that we have just launched called Sokator 442, which is like Football Manager but with aliens.”
Celebrity Pedigree, www.celebritypedigree.com
Kempt’s Celebrity Pedigree is an ‘advergame’ where players breed dogs for profit. Gameplay is simple; players choose a male and a female celebrity dog from their kennels and put them together in the breeding pen.
Players must judge which combinations of parents are likely to produce the best pups, and decide which to sell and which to keep for breeding. Commissioned by Triviala.com, a trivia quiz website, Celebrity Pedigree was sent out to Kempt’s friends and partners at sites like Newgrounds.com and featured on its own games portal, KillerViral.com.
Built using Flash, the game makes a periodic check with Google Trends to find out the current popularity of the real-life celebrity. It launched in March of this year and within a month MemeCounter.com had recorded in excess of 1.4 million visits.
A growing number of handheld devices – including the PSP, and a constantly updating stream of mobile phone models – mean that gaming isn’t limited to the TV or computer anymore.
InboxDMG’s Jelly Jumper combines ultra-simple gameplay with a cute character and progressively harder levels to keep players coming back.
Sonny 2 is a combat-based Flash role-playing game where you play as a zombie, level up and gain items to advance to the next zone.
Sony’s LittleBigPlanet takes a small step towards opening up the games development universe to amateurs, allowing players to create their own levels and upload them to the Internet to be played by anybody.
Created by Armor Games and hosted on Newgrounds.com, Sonny 2 capitalizes on easy game concepts and escalating levels of difficulty.
Simple web-based games such as InBoxDMG’s game for Post-it Notes pick up users by having a simple concept and the fact that playing a round takes just a few moments.
Like the Wii, Nintendo DSi is targeted at non-traditional gamers.
The simple controls of the Nintendo Wii are credited with opening up console-based gaming to new audiences beyond the traditional profile of the young, male gamer.